It’s exactly one month since Sue and I left the UK for Missoula, Montana in the USA. Not an easy place to get to but really worth it when you’ve arrived. We missed our connection on the way out and our luggage went two different ways but we all arrived safely even though it was 7am in the morning UK time, 12 midnight in Missoula. The welcome as always from our friend Kay Valentine was as warm as ever as was the weather. The first week it ranged from the mid 90sF to 105F but a very dry heat. Montana is 3½ times the size of the UK with only 1 million population, wonderful mountains, valleys, rivers and lots of wild life. One morning Sue and I saw a moose with her calf walking past where we were staying, a rare sight. Deer are everywhere, you really have to watch out for them as you drive and they’re always in the gardens. In the mountains it is not unusual to spy bear, mountain lion, coyotes and even wolves, we have seen none of these so far.
I guess if I summed up our first month, I would call it “A tale of 5 churches”. We’ve travelled widely taking in a good part of eastern Montana as well as excursions into Idaho and Washington State. It’s never boring driving in such beautiful scenery along roads that are never busy and as it’s holiday time the rivers and lakes have plenty of holiday makers camping and enjoying either boating, wild river rafting or simply cooling off. They only have a couple of months of summer so they make the most of it. Come September it begins to get colder and then the snow comes until April/May. Some parts are virtually inaccessible for months which does mean isolation and leads to a quite high suicide rate. Hope that helps set the scene for really 3 months here.
Having said all that as I look out of our window, it has been raining very heavily on and off for the last four days. No complaints from the folk here as they always welcome rain in the summer months which lowers the risk of forest fires.
Our first 2 weeks were spent in Missoula, our base. We have 2 churches here that are part of our Regions Beyond family, Clark Fork City Church and The Lion’s Den. I preached at The Lion’s Den on our first Sunday. It’s led by Jon Meek and his wife Miriam. It’s a little different as Jon and Miriam have always given a good welcome to those whom others might not feel able to accommodate. Some have served prison sentences, others have needed help to get off drugs and other dependences. You have to finish the preach on time otherwise some will have to leave simply because they are still serving time but have permission to attend the service. Jon and Miriam are experienced church planters and have created in The Lion’s Den a wonderful grace filled atmosphere. The music is loud, more heavy metal than soothing guitar and full of life. We were made so welcome and after the service enjoyed a wonderful lunch with Jon and Miriam in their home which is some way outside Missoula centre. Jon at heart is a cowboy and his house in the “boonies” was more like a ranch but it did have a very pretty garden. If you look at the Regions Beyond website, Jon is there being interviewed at the Hub, Dubai last year recommending attendance at the Hub 2015 in November. I met on several occasions with Jon as well as meeting his sons David (the mad musician) and Nate who shares leadership with him. Great to be making new friends and sharing adventures for Jesus together.
July 4th was coming up when the Americans celebrate their freedom from English colonial tyranny in the late 18th century, many go away to enjoy a weekend’s break so it was decided not to have church that Sunday but for the two churches to come together mid week. They had never done this before and what an occasion it was, more casual atmosphere than solemn church as we all enjoyed good food in the car park supplied by vendors selling hot dogs, burgers, ice cream (and other food I have no name for!), a great start to an evening of celebration. For me bringing the two churches together is the beginning of something new and different. I preached on what the church would look like if Pentecost had never taken place, it wasn’t long before the penny dropped and most realised that sadly what should be spirit filled congregations sometimes aren’t as God intended, caused a little stir and much conversation but also a commitment to change. On July 4th we did celebrate their freedom with a wonderful BBQ at friends of Kay’s although I did point out that mad George IV was a Hanovarian (German), not English. The evening was rounded off by a wonderful firework display, I have to say they know how to get things off with a bang here!
One of the privileges Sue and I have as we travel is meeting new people and visiting new churches, many of which have only just been started. So we left our base in Missoula and travelled some 3 hours north to Spokane, a city in Washington State, larger than Missoula. Jon Meek junior had been one of the leaders in the Missoula Church but left some 3 years ago to move to Spokane to plant a church. With his wife Becca and 3 children they have pioneered, making friends, sharing the gospel, earning a living along the way and now gathering a young church committed to making an impact in their community. They are to be honoured as they have worked hard, paying their own way and seeing a small church grow from virtually nothing. I ought to mention here that our very dear friends Lee & Stacey Yarbrough from Nuevos Fronteras Mexico have been a great help and encouragement to the church in it’s infant stages and continue to do so. It is good to be partnering with Lee in this apostolic way in Spokane.
Meeting new friends is always a delight and in Spokane Sue and I stayed with Tracy and Jani and their 18 year old son Colten. Tracy was previously an engineer but in 1998 felt the call to full time Christian ministry and went to the prestigious theological seminary in Vancouver, Canada. When I learnt of some of the scholars he sat under, it made my mouth water! We enjoyed several hours talking theology and church history etc and with a game of golf thrown in it made it all so enjoyable. Men’s breakfasts I always enjoy speaking at so we gathered the guys early Saturday and over a good breakfast I was able to talk about being a mature man for Christ. I love these opportunities. Sundays, the church share a Lutheran building in the city, led by Doug, the pastor. We met at 11am after the Lutheran services but Doug stayed on as I preached. In my preach I shared the story of my Indian friend Finny who I got to know in Durham when he was studying for his Doctorate in Theology. Back now in India his work is amazing and I used this as an illustration. To my amazement Doug, himself quite a scholar, told me Finny was his friend and he had helped him with his Doctorate. Finny sometimes visits Spokane and speaks for Doug so next time the two churches will join together. I also arranged for Steve and Heather to visit over the next couple of weeks and again both groups will come together. The prophetic word given to Newfrontiers years ago “you can do more together than apart” very much resonates with me and has been a guiding word on this trip thus far. Sue and I returned to Missoula much encouraged. The small but growing church in Spokane is in good hands with Jon and Donald the elders and some gifted men and women that have been added to them.
So back to Missoula on the 13th July stopping off on the way to play golf on a scenic mountain course set in the most beautiful countryside. Unfortunately I took a tumble on some wet ground and had to call it a day and whilst very bruised no bones were broken and nothing dislocated although we were quite concerned. Sue was winning at the time so claimed another victory, no mercy there! In Missoula church Brent, one of the elders, is a wonderful physiotherapist, so he is putting me back together and now I’m swinging again.
Come the 17th July we left for Helena some 2 hours drive away, the capital of Montana, famous for its gold rush in the late 19th century, very much another cowboy town. The outdoor life of hunting, fishing, hiking, wild river rafting is part of their way of life, healthy and a great environment to raise a family in. J.R. Quigley VI leads a team of young elders here, one of them Jason I met many years ago when I first came to Missoula around 1995 as a young student at Missoula University and famous as a Rodeo bull rider. Soccer makes more sense to me but as they say “each to his own”. Rodeo is big here and we hope to visit one towards the end of our stay.
Our visit was memorable in many ways. First we stayed with J.R. and his delightful wife Janny and their three children. J.R. never stopped asking questions, a most inquisitive mind and I was pleased to escape and come up for air sometimes but a delight to see the church in the hands of four young, energetic, enthusiastic leaders. The church had acquired a new facility a few years ago which is impressive and designed to be as much a community centre as a church building. This gives the church so much contact with the people and a wonderful opportunity to help where they can. We enjoyed a great Sunday with them, preaching in their morning meeting and in the evening 2 hours of church history “ Intro to the European Reformation and the life of Martin Luther and his wife Catherine”. I was in my element and they bought every Table Talks dvd set I had with me.
However, the Saturday night was a special time in Helena. Each year the town is treated to a “Symphony in the Park” evening. Some 15,000 gathered in the open air (no charge) and this year the orchestra celebrated 100 years since the birth of Frank Sinatra. A well known Las Vegas singer took us through Sinatra’s story and songs. It was terrific, a great atmosphere, sitting in the open air under the stars. The people are so friendly, so welcoming and adults and children so well behaved. No rubbish left behind and to cap it all off a great firework display. That’s the second on this trip. Sue and I left Helena knowing we had made new friends who are anxious to join us in Regions Beyond on adventures for Jesus both in their State as well as further afield. By the time Sue and I left to move to Bozeman some 1½ hours away we had packed so much into 5 days.
We then travelled to Bozeman to meet up with old friends Brian and Margaret Asay. Brian led the church in Helena for many years and then handed over leadership to J.R. and the young team and moved on to Bozeman. Brian has gone back to practising law as an attorney for a while and Margaret works as a realtor (estate agent) until they are clear about the next step in God’s plan for them. Brian and Margaret’s daughter Jeannine and son-in-law Ted moved to Bozeman about 2 years ago and have begun to gather some friends on Thursday evenings. Some others from Helena have joined them and now there is a growing group. We met with them and what a delightful group they are, very friendly and very eager to see the Kingdom of God being extended there. Their meetings are simple, a meal followed by a time in God’s Word and then prayer. I shared from Acts 11 on what Barnabas saw of the grace of God in Antioch and how within a year after Paul had joined them from Tarsus they were sent off by the Holy Spirit to preach the gospel to the Gentile nations. I encouraged them to retain the wonderful atmosphere they have and to multiply their gatherings across the city. I recalled the command to “not despise small beginnings”. Ted and Jeannine and their group are eager to partner with us and we look forward to adventures together in the future.
So back to Missoula. We took our time, 6 hours on what could have been a 3 hour journey as we passed through some of the most beautiful countryside, great mountains, still snow capped and luscious valleys – cattle country. We visited an old ghost town and had been treated by the Missoula church to an overnight break at Jackson in a hot springs hotel. We had been advised it was rustic but I expected a “resort”. However we found Jackson had a population of only 35 people, a school , one café and a post office. So where was the resort? Well, we found it to be an old Western eating house and bar and when we got inside it was the old West! We enjoyed a wonderful meal, comfortable wooden bed and we promised ourselves to return another time. They had piped water from the hot springs into their swimming pool and that day the water in the pool was 102 degrees!
Back in Missoula we had a great welcome from our dear friend Kay and a wonderful meal was awaiting us, tired from travel but very satisfied in the Lord, five churches eager to go on adventures both at home and overseas. Trevor & Rachel Payne arrived in Missoula on Saturday so on Sunday we both preached to enthusiastic people, Trevor at The Lion’s Den and I at Clark Fork City Church.
Tomorrow Steve & Heather Oliver arrive and we begin the build up to the Rocky Mountain Summit, the first Regions Beyond conference in Missoula. Please pray for us.
Hope you enjoyed our first Travel Log from Missoula, Montana.
Your friends, Ray & Sue